Even if no man walks alone, John Steed stands alone.
Stood alone, rather, the news of his portrayer Patrick Macnee’s recent death making my old memories immediate again. I saw my first Avengers episodes in France. They were dubbed and I was bemused to see Macnee-Steed addressing not Madame Peel, the Mrs. Peel even a casual fan associated with the show,but Mademoiselle King, the replacement character played by Linda Thorson in the show’s last year of production after Diana Rigg had left the show and pretty much taken its mojo with her. Macnee, of course, had been both before and after Rigg and the ineffably, incomprehensibly glorious complement in need of a strong, progressive female character – which Tara King conclusively was not.
Still, even in the show’s messy, gaudy 1968-season decline, Steed’s unmistakably, ornately iconic character stood out. Through persistence- or inertia- I made it through a wearingly convoluted plot to the closing credits (featuring card tricks supposedly performed by Macnee himself), to one particular credit that’s stayed with me for years: “Mr. Macnee’s suits designed by HIMSELF.”
A long story lay behind that choice. Macnee made Steed, even though he was not Steed. Both Macnee and Steed were scions of the upper classes who attended the most elite school in England, Eton College, and served in World War II. Afterwards, however, Macnee diverged from his fictional character by becoming a gun-hating pacifist (referring to having seen too many friends blown to bits in the war to want to carry a gun while in characer) and an erstwhile nudist. His ambivalence to clothing came early, being raised in a castle by his mother and her girlfriend who so hated men, according to his autobiography Blind in One Ear, that they forced him to wear a dress on visits home from school – before Eton sent him down permanently. In his account, Eton expelled him for gambling and pornography (distributing it, rather than featuring in it, to the best of my knowledge).
Macnee eventually ended up on British TV, in his own words one of the nondescript “two men in raincoats” in the rather dour first incarnation of The Avengers, back when Macnee was simply a mysterious stranger helping police surgeon Ian Hendry avenge his fiancée’s murder. Faced with the producers’ ultimatum to make his character more interesting, he drew on his past for memories of his father. A dissolute and drunken racehorse trainer, Macnee senior nonetheless was a prewar Edwardian dandy who always had a flower in his lapel. Macnee fils had Steed insert his in the buttonholes of suits from the West End of London, dramatically cut with nipped waists, accessorized with ties with elegant stickpins. Bowlers and furled umbrellas – the off-duty accoutrements of the privileged guards regiments whose ranks English gentlemen filled – followed, making John Steed an atavist, the emblem of a mythical and glorious past Britannia where the the geopolitical humiliations of the 1950s had never happened. Steed as designed by Macnee was the perfect companion for the strong, modern female partners (Honor Blackman’s Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel) who replaced his original, male, costar. The ensuing duos, whose repartee and body language were replete with will-they-or-won’t-they (or are-they-already?) innuendo, made the show a resounding hit.
Success can victimize, though. By 1967, a deal to broadcast The Avengers on American television led to it being shot in color and to an ill-fated tie-in with designer Pierre Cardin, the Tom Ford of his time (no, I won’t take that back). While the ’67 season’s kaleidoscopic sets and palettes made it a sort of ersatz, dizzy Pop Art, Steed’s Cardin clothes amounted to a bad pastiche of Englishness, rather, I suppose, like Ford’s clothes for James Bond. Gone was the carefully cultivated ethos of John Steed as a latter-day Regency Buck, a dashing modern version of the swaggerers of early 19th-century London. Even if Steed’s dressing had been inspired by the past, Macnee had juxtaposed it to his period and made something new. The Cardin styles he was forced into were stereotype rather than archetype, artifacts indissociable from their time and reduced to little more than the symbolic anachronism of his bowler hat and Mrs. Peel’s leather boots. Years later, Macnee reminded a tailor outfitting him for the ill-advised 1970s series The New Avengers, that The Avengers used to set styles, not follow them. Pre-Cardin, Steed dressed like an Edwardian time traveler. Under Cardin, his dressed veered to the camp neo-Edwardianism that had already been aped and claimed by the Teddy Boys.
The Avengers’ final season featured attempts to reclaim – to reclaim the ethos of the older seasons, to reclaim the aging Steed’s stamina and virility (through unfortunately prescribing Macnee speed masquerading as diet pills), to do what it took to reorient the show back onto its axis. It wasn’t sufficient to counter the polar shift of Diana Rigg leaving, in-show, for the long-missing Mr Peel and, of course, out of show to become the only Mrs. Bond. Reorienting the show’s remaining pole, Steed, meant reimposing Macnee’s own stamp on the character and his wardrobe.
Even if Steed was not Macnee, Steed was more than bowler and umbrella. No doubt the immediately visible affectations of that character made him an instantly recognizable show piece and caricature, contributing to Macnee’s convention-attending revenue stream for the last half-century. But for the character to have first become memorable took more than that, took the talent that Macnee himself spent an entire life minimizing, underestimating and downplaying, the application of the flaws and foibles of upbringing, drawing on a rejected and rejecting parentage and the manner to which he was born, and the knowledge of a life and class he never embraced. Drawing on those, on the onus of a past he could do no better or worse than simply live with, he dressed in clothes of his own design, from the tailors, hatters, shirtmakers and shoemakers he knew could make them.
He set the style, for a time, and as Steed dressed with a flair and creativity – always with references and callbacks to the classic – that alone can make style classic. In other words, the only way to achieve permanent style is to become a style icon on your own. Or not to give a fuck and let it all hang out, as he allegedly did in his spare time. In other words, and in all cases, he remained, like his character, designed by himself. Patrick Macnee, actor, writer, caring father, permanent self-deprecator, icon. RIP.